“How old are you?” Jamie asked, gazing up at me with those adorable baby blues.
“How old do you think I am?”
She took a step back, cocked her head to the side and gave me a good once-over. “Thirteen?”
I laughed. “Close. For today, let’s just pretend I’m five.” And for the next seven hours, that’s exactly what we did.
It wasn’t a desire to cover myself in scratch-and-sniff stickers that impelled me to trek to Williamstown Elementary School on that blustery spring morning. Rather, I was on a serious mission. I wanted to investigate how kindergarten has changed since the good ol’ days of 1998 – when the Spice Girls reigned supreme, Arthur was the coolest show on TV and Pluto was still a planet. But I didn’t just want to learn about life in school these days – I wanted to live it.
So, at 8:25 a.m., I shuffled into the Mrs. Callahan’s kindergarten class, dropped my backpack in its designated corner and sought out a seat at one of the roundtables. As I squeezed my 5’9” frame into one of the miniature wooden armchairs, I recalled how much I hated them even back then. I remember with remarkable clarity the day Breanna Kester got her head stuck between the slots in the back of her chair and had to be sawed out by Stanley – our beloved, mustached custodian.
But Mrs. Callahan wasn’t about to let anything like that happen. She was warm but no-nonsense – the kind of teacher that probably spends hours at home pondering her students’ futures but refuses to let any silly business derail a lesson plan.
After everyone arrived and we’d recited the Pledge of Allegiance (a relic of my pre-Williams existence), the class congregated in the back of the room. We sat Indian-style in a circle and Jill, the appointed historian for the day, marked the date on the calendar with a Velcro apple. Meanwhile, Caden, the designated meteorologist, surveyed the weather outside and informed us that it was “cold and cloudy … again.”
“Okay, now I want you guys to read the message I wrote you,” Mrs. Callahan said. At first, I thought I’d misheard. These kids could read? I didn’t learn to read until I was at least six or seven (and if you asked some of my professors, they’d say my comprehension is still marginal). I was astounded as I listened to them recite the note Mrs. Callhan had scribbled on the whiteboard.
“Mrs. Callahan, you forgot a period there,” said one boy.
“That’s right, Tommy,” she replied with a smile. “Did I make any other mistakes?”
Another hand shot up. “You spelled ‘have’ wrong,” Jamie said. “There should be an ‘e’ at the end.”
“Very good, Jamie. What else?” I sat back, dumbstruck. These kids were noticing mistakes I didn’t even spot! Have five-year-olds really gotten that much smarter in the last 14 years?
After the students edited Mrs. Callahan’s note, we moved on to an in-depth investigation of the letter ‘G.’ “Can you think of words that begin with a ‘G’?” she asked. My classmates were quick to contribute answers. “Goose!” “Garden!” “Green!” And less than 20 seconds in, little Tommy pulled out the trump card: “Gamble!”
“What’s that?” asked Billy, wide-eyed with curiosity.
“It’s where you go into casinos. But you have to be 21. I wish I was 21!”
Mrs. Callahan shot me a sidelong glance. “Tommy just got back from a family vacation to Las Vegas,” she muttered. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Once we’d finished exploring the letter “G” in all its complexities, it was time for lunch. I was curious to see what the cafeteria would be serving up. My elementary school certainly didn’t cater to health nuts. I recall consuming heaping helpings of our cafeteria’s specialty – chicken and waffles – washed down with the best chocolate milk on Earth. So I was surprised to find that Williamstown Elementary has its own salad bar complete with semi-fresh vegetables and cottage cheese. And right next to the cafeteria’s Thanksgiving-style turkey sat a tray of heart-healthy veggie burgers.
Next came the highlight of the day: recess. But to be honest, I was nervous to hit the playground. When I was five, making friends seemed like the hardest thing in the world. But once I allowed some over-eager classmates to tackle me to the ground, I recognized the secret to winning over any kindergartner in the world: just get dirty. Once I did, they wouldn’t leave me alone.
“Julia! Come roll on the ground with us!”
“Julia! Do cartwheels with us!”
“Julia! Make mud pies with us!”
After time was up, we trudged in, our faces flushed, hands and jeans caked with mud from rolling on the rain-soaked turf. It was then that I realized how much kindergarten classrooms resemble scenes from Beavis and Butthead. I snorted as Billy approached Tommy to make an important announcement: “Hey look. My butt’s wet.”
“Hehe. My butt’s wet, too.”
“Hehe. Do you think we could start a game called ‘wet butt man?’ We can like, chase each other into puddles and get our butts wet.”
The kids resumed their handwriting lessons, attempting to form neat ‘G’s as they colored pictures of grapes and gorillas, staying perfectly within the lines. As I sat next to Maddie, struggling to remember how to print, I marveled that I ever managed to pass kindergarten. I lack all the skills that comprise the kindergarten curriculum – neatness, organization and rudimentary artistic ability. And considering how much was being demanded of these students, there’s no way I would have made it through today.
In all honesty, Mrs. Callahan’s class works much harder than I did. By the end of the year, students are expected to be able to read, write, use computers and even speak a few phrases of Mandarin (part of a new language program that Williamstown Elementary pioneered this year).
“Kids are really expected to do a lot more,” Mrs. Callahan explained as the day was winding down. “It used to be just an extension of preschool – just basic alphabet and numbers. Now we do writing and math. We’re finding that they can handle it.” And Williamstown Elementary School is not an anomaly; Mrs. Callahan noted that such a rigorous curriculum is the norm for kindergarten these days.
But as I watched my new friends file out the door at the end of the day, giving Mrs. Callahan hugs and high fives as they passed, I had to smile. They might be smarter than we were at their age, but they’re fundamentally the same. I can imagine playing wet butt man with friends, sneaking chocolate at snack time and being enamored of teenage girls with long hair. The experience of being five – guzzling juice boxes, reveling in mud-covered jeans and basking in the glory of a perfectly printed “G” – is the same as it was in 1998. Kindergarten may have changed, but kindergartners haven’t.